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Dr. Terri Apter Archives
6/29/00
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My question for Dr. Apter is:
Dear Dr Apter,
I actually stumbled on your page while searching for resources that would help in my counseling ministry.  I would very much appreciate advice, material, etc. that you can guide me with.  My focus, like yours, will be mainly on relationships with IN-LAWS Causes and Cures of Conflict.  My environment here in Nigeria (Africa) is very different from yours culturally, but you can bet MIL problems are uncannily similar!  I'm quite willing to reciprocate by sharing resources as this program evolves.  I thank you and look forward to hearing from you.  Best regards

P.S.  I must tell you - I've been married for 15 years and enjoy an excellent relationship with my wife's parents.  On the down side, my relationship with MY mum isn't that hot.  It's my wife who seems to understand her (not me)!

Dr Apter's Reply:
It was good to hear of your interest in my work on mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law.  It would be very interesting to learn about the problems you have to address.  Much of my work can actually be viewed on the mother-in-law stories website, but I have a paper I presented to the British Psychological Society which I could get ready to email to you if you think that would be helpful.  In the meantime, we could perhaps begin a dialogue by hearing about the problems you witness.  The stories would be interesting to all visitors of the website.  I would also be pleased to give you my views about how one might begin to manage those problems.  Best wishes.

NOTE:  Unfortunately, the e-mail address voluntarily included in this correspondence was not valid.  If the original sender remains interested, please make contact again through this site.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
I remarried just over a year ago.  At the time, my husband was living with his mother, along with two children (2 and 8), after his wife left him a year earlier, after being caught in a lesbian relationship.  His comment to me, while dating, was that he "had it great" as Grandma helped with the kids (he travels a great deal and, granted, would have had major problems with the kids and with his job without help.)  The real situation was that Grandma drained him dry financially, took kids to daycare, and fed them absolute junk.  House was a total wreck at all times.  Shortly after we got serious it "came out" that the youngest child was not his, and further, that she had reactive attachment disorder, Fetal Alcohol Effects, and generally was a scary, destructive child who we were told did not need to be around other kids, as she was a threat to their physical and emotional well-being.  He felt very guilty, and felt like it was his fault.  But, in all our counseling, he acknowledged that he just didn't have the feelings for her that a father should have for a daughter.  The therapist pointed out that, with her emotional problems, including a lack of empathy, conscience, and ability to reciprocate love, along with the lack of a biological tie, he was not a bad person to feel unable to continue to try to raise her.  His mother, who, during our entire courtship, was a pro at guilt-tripping my now husband, and at telling me (behind his back, of course) alternately how he "took care of her" by giving her his credit cards, grilling steaks for her, etc., and how helpless and dependent on her he was, took this and went to town.  I can't tell you the hell we went through after the child, now 4 1/2, began the death threats, wandering the house at night with knives, tormenting daycare pets, etc., and we knew she could not be part of our family.  Grandma insisted that she wanted custody, and after a year and nearly $10,000 spent by us, she has it.  Now, she has the ultimate weapon to use to get attention from my husband.

Dr Apter's reply:
It sounds as though you are walking on a minefield.  Your husband is very dependent on his mother to see how much she costs him, both emotionally and financially.  However, her pursuit of custody of the 4-year-old child could well be to your advantage.  This child, about whom your husband (very understandably) has divided feelings, is clearly disturbed and disruptive.  If your mother-in-law looks after him, and has custody of him, will it be easier for you and your husband to make a family life with his own child?  You may be able to cushion your husband against his mother's guilt trips by reminding him how much he has done for her, and for both the children.  Clearly you feel very supportive of him - and that could make him stronger.

My question for Dr. Apter is: 
Dear Dr. Apter,
I have never had a good relationship with my younger sister-in-law.  The story would be too long if I went into that part of my problem, so I'll just fast-forward to present day.  I am 8 1/2 months pregnant.  Recently, younger sister-in-law sent a 2 page letter to my husband.  She is a college student, and spent the semester studying in Finland.  In this letter she did not mention my name once, but said she couldn't wait to see HIM, to see HIS new house, and to see HIS new baby.  Also, that she hoped HE was making sure her unborn niece was growing nicely.  She also mentioned she was flying into our home town when she returned to the states.  We had no way of contacting sister-in-law to let her know that the time she planned on arriving was not going to work for us (about a week after our baby is due).  So, my husband told my mother-in-law that younger sister-in-law wasn't welcome here at that time.  My mother-in-law is the only person who has contact with younger sister-in-law, so that is why we said something to her, because we thought it should be said before any plane tickets were purchased.  My husband wasn't too tactful when he mentioned it to his mom, so I thought I would try and smooth things out a little, and I wrote my mother-in-law an email asking her to understand that, because of me and sister-in-law's past problems, it would be best if she flew in to an airport that was more convenient for mother-in-law to pick her up at.  I never said younger sister-in-law was banned from our house, just that right after I gave birth wasn't the best time.  Well, apparently my mother-in-law forwarded this e-mail to my older sister-in-law.  Some how, my older sister-in-law sent a reply to her mom, but it mistakenly got sent to me (she must have done a reply to all or something?).  In that e-mail she said some horrible things about me.  That they should "let me have it," never speak to me again, tell my husband what I said (which I found a little strange because I pretty much restated what he had said).

Dr Apter's reply:
It seems that your sister-in-law was offended by what you said.  She responds by getting angry, and attacking you.  But you have every right to avoid visitors when you are about 
to give birth!  The fact that your sister-in-law does not see this is part of her general policy of ignoring you as a person (and speaking only about your husband and the child).  I am glad that your husband is so supportive.  I suspect that your mother-in-law's "mistake" - sending an email to you that was intended for her daughter - was in some sense intentional.  Try not to let your sister-in-law's (or mother-in-law's) anger unsettle you.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
My MIL always worries that her daughters will be jealous or unhappy if she is nice to me.  My MIL has always been very protective towards my sister-in-law.  They are very jealous about me over everything, like my home, income, I travel often, how I dress, and so on.  They have been giving me problems for 10 years, ever since I was a girl friend to their brother.  We've tried talking to them (the siblings), however my parents-in-law were not happy.  I've always been very generous to all the family members.  For every celebrated occasion I bought them presents, even if I was on a holiday trip.  My parents-in-law are fishmongers.  For so many years I have been hurt and disappointed by Mil and SIL.  I've always chosen to forgive them by gods graces.  One of the sis-in-law always feels threatened in my presence.  She likes to control the rest of the siblings.  If anyone of them is close to me she gets very unhappy.  She will cause some misunderstanding,  and be glad to see the everyone end up not being on good terms with me.  There are too many occasion to mention.  I have concluded that they are a very self-centered family.  They take everything for granted, and they've so much pride in themselves that they've become arrogant.  I am very tired of being sandwiched between them.  This just triggered my memory of another bad experience.  8 months ago we had discussed and agreed to sponsor the Parents on a trip.  All liked the idea and agreed to it.  As the day approached (the birthday) no one mentioned anything about it.  Therefore, my husband and I volunteered to follow up on the arrangements.  As my mil preferred the shorter trip instead, each person's share of the cost will be lesser.  My mil told one of the SIL's (who is in the States now) a different story - that she prefers cash.  I was confused because she had been so excited.  And she was only worried that the children needed to come up with the money.  My SIL emailed to us that her preference was to give cash rather than a holiday trip.  The way she phrased it was like either way it was her birthday present.  She can chose to go some other time, or put it in a bank to gain interest.

Dr Apter's reply:
As I understand it, you have been very generous, but your generosity has been ignored.  Your thoughtful ideas for giving your parents-in-law a holiday have been taken over by your sibling-in-laws, who change it and take credit for it.  As I see it, you have a choice.  You could sit down with your parents-in-law and explain what you planned for them and what you would like to do.  It is possible that your parents-in-law may then focus on your thoughtfulness and respond to it appropriately.  A second possibility is that you distance yourself from them, and decide that you have been generous for long enough.  Since they have so often slighted you and failed to acknowledge your effort and consideration, it may be time to be simply polite and respectful, but not so generous. 

My question for Dr. Apter is: 
Three years ago when my father-in-law passed away I whole heartedly agreed for my in-excellent-health, financially-independent mother-in-law to move in with me, my husband, and three children upon her request (at the time we had a good relationship).  One year later, when she retired, she sold her home and moved six hundred miles north to our home; leaving her parents, three brothers, two sisters and only other son (no daughters).  She moved into our walk-out basement complete with 2 bedrooms, 1 full bath, full kitchen, dining area, walk-in pantry, 3 walk-in closets, private drive, private carport, and her own telephone line.  Needless to say, she is fully independent on us physically --- when she chooses to be.  In the beginning, she was obviously very needy emotionally and physically.  Therefore, in an attempt to make the transition easier, I unpacked her things and helped put them away, introduced her to people that she still remains close to, drove her places since she is intimidated in traffic, took her to places where she could meet people her age, etc.  I did all these things with a happy heart, hoping to make the transition smooth.  She was very appreciative, and with time has formed close relationships, has traveled all over the world, and taken up new hobbies.  She has, as they say, "her own life".  However, although she has her "own life" independent from us (which is GREAT), she doesn't seem to want us to have a life independent from her.  Unless she has plans otherwise, she expects to go with us out to eat, to church, family events, to ballgames, on vacations, she is at our dinner table every time we sit down to eat.  Don't misunderstand, I wouldn't mind going some of the time.  But her going with us is the rule, not the exception.  I feel it should be the other way around.  When we tell her we want it to just be us, she gets her feelings hurt and pouts for a day or two, which makes my husband feel bad.  When we leave, she would like for us to tell her where we're going, or when we come home.  When I was resting with my husband, my mother-in-law was in our family room with my kids (unbeknownst to me).  Her comment to me was, "Yeah, the kids told me that you both had headaches and went to lie down.  I know better.  I know what you've been doing up there."  Although the kids didn't hear this, I was appalled, and felt this was yet another area in my life that she was intruding.

Understand that this is not an overbearing, controlling woman.  She was married for 33 years to a very dominating, controlling man who made all the decisions, and took care of everything for her.  She is an easily intimidated, insecure and emotional woman, and seems to depend on my husband the way she did hers.  Now the kicker:

About one week ago I went downstairs to her apartment to look for my daughter.  On the way down the stairs I heard my mother-in-law talking, and when I realized she was on the phone I started back up the stairs.  As I turned to go back up the stairs I heard my name.  I stopped to hear her saying terrible things about me, even questioning why, "My boys married the girls they did, especially when I think about some of the other girls they dated and could have married."  Needless to say, I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach!  Later that night I confronted her about her conversation, and she said we need to talk.  I told her I didn't want to talk.  When she kept on following me and insisting that there had been something wrong with our relationship for a long time, and that we need to talk, I told her that I didn't want to talk to her, look at her, and if there was a problem she should have come to me to talk, and not her buddies!  I was so upset I could hardly breathe.  After three days of not seeing her (my husband saw and talked to her briefly) she called my husband at work and insisted that we talk that night.  We talked that night.  Of course, she cried (seemingly trying to make herself seem like the victim), and apologized to me, but said that if I had not made her feel shut out and unwanted in our lives, that she wouldn't have felt the need to "confide" (she was laughing and making sarcastic comments in her phone conversation) in her friend, and so it was really my fault that she said these things.  I refused to take responsibility, and told her that she chose to say those things and that I would not apologize.  The next morning, feeling sorry for her, I went down to her apartment and told her that if I made her feel left out that I was sorry and I apologized, but that things would never be the same between us.  We haven't seen or spoken much since.  I don't want to see or speak to her.  I know she will always be a part of our lives, and I respect the fact that she is my husband's mother and my children's grandmother.  But I will never trust her again, and don't even desire the relationship we once had.

Please advise me-- is there a way for us to live in harmony under the same roof now that there is so much water under the bridge?  I feel I can live with her in my house as long as she understands the boundaries and respects my/our privacy.  Would it be mentally and emotionally healthy for me?  How do I make her understand and know that to expect me to even want her around at all is asking too much?  I admit that I may feel differently as time goes by.  I am open to any suggestions, advice, or comments you have.  Thank you

Dr Apter's reply:
Sometimes being generous leads to problems.  You gave your mother-in-law special care to help her make the transition to her new home.  It seems that she thought this was a precedent for how you would always behave - and she came to expect it and think that she deserved it.  As you prepared to give her more independence, she (unreasonably) felt that you were letting her down.  You now have to stand up for your wish to have an independent life and to be treated with respect.  I would allow her to sulk for a while. There is no need to keep apologizing to her - in fact, I would avoid any further apology.  Try to be neutrally cheerful.  Invite her to come out with you, or join you in your home from time to time, but preserve your independence and privacy.  Perhaps this rift will eventually lead to a better balance in your home.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
I hope you can help me.  My husband's brother and his wife are very different than us.  They are very much into money and status.  They are extremely snobby and shallow.  In the past, when we've gotten together, there are uncomfortable silences because no one knows what to say to each other.  They want to talk about wine-tasting, the stock market, money and how to acquire more of it, their latest possessions, partying, and how certain people aren't fit to be alive because they don't have money. (They don't make comments like that about us, to our faces, anyways.)  The funny thing is they're in debt (they don't know we know that), they just keep spending and spending to impress the neighbors (they live in an exclusive country club).  My husband and I are into the more meaningful and spiritual things of life (we're both in the social work profession).  I have no way to relate to shallow people such as this when I've been at work helping battered, homeless women and children all day.  Another problem is with my MIL.  She has this utopian idea that we should all be best friends.  She even cries about it to my husband, because she feels we don't spend enough time with them.  Don't get me wrong, my husband loves his brother, but more for what his brother used to be (down-to-earth, "real") rather than who he is, now that he's been with his status-seeking wife for several years.  But even now, occasionally we'll see the good side of him come out.  My husband and I have tried to think of things we might have in common, but we're at a loss.  One thing we came up with is the fact that they have 2 dogs and we have one too.  But when we tried to bring it up in conversation, they said what a mutt our dog is, and how they don't understand how anyone would want a mixed breed when they could have purebreds (they paid several hundred dollars each for their dogs, I got mine free at an animal shelter).  Plus, these people refuse to do anything for entertainment that costs less than $100 (such as rent a movie, make dinner).

Dr Apter's reply:
It sounds as though your in-laws' idea of friendship is to have an audience to air their own ideas and flaunt their own assets.  Common interests will simply become a focus of 
competition, and they will declare themselves superior.  Perhaps your mother-in-law herself is uneasy with her son's character, and therefore feels threatened by your response (because it confirms her own inadmissible thoughts).  You or your husband could reassure her that you are pleased to see them occasionally as family, but that friendship has a magic element that cannot be forced.  Perhaps you could explain that this is no one's fault.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
PLEASE HELP ME!!!  My mil is ruining our lives, and I can't understand why.  He (her son) and I have been together for three years, and have just recently been forced to move in with his mom.  She goes out of her way to make my life a living hell.  She will not let me use certain dishes, will not let me cook, or watch her television, which is in the living room.  She tells her son that I constantly go through her things and that I won't leave her stuff alone.  I'm not even allowed to get phone calls here, and I live here and pay half of the bills.  I want to know why you think she is being like this, and why her son is not sticking up for me??/  PLEASE.  I AM SO CLOSE TO LEAVING HIM, BUT DON'T WANT TO.  Please help.

Dr Apter's reply:
This is a difficult situation.  Your mother-in-law seems to be having some trouble sharing her home.  I suggest that both you and your husband tell her how grateful you are for being able to live with her, and that you understand how difficult it must be for her.  You could go on to say that you very much want the arrangement to work, and you want her to tell you what she expects from you.  On the other hand, she needs to understand that as much as you want to respect her wishes, you also need to maintain your dignity and freedom.  So while you are happy not to use the dishes she cherishes for her own, you need to be able to receive and make phone calls.  Also ask her, if she has any problem with your behavior, that she states her problem clearly to you, and that you are given a chance to discuss this.

My question for Dr. Apter is: 
My mother-in-law is a problem, because my husband takes up for her and basically says she is right in EVERYTHING she does, without taking into consideration that what she is doing is very hurtful to me.  My real issue is how to deal with her and him without causing an argument between my husband and I.  My MIL is absolutely obnoxious when it comes to our 4 1/2 month old boy.  A little background - my husband is the only (and desperately tried for) child.  My MIL & FIL are my husband's employers.  Major problem.  My MIL feels that she has a right to enter the house WITH HER OWN KEY WITHOUT RINGING THE DOORBELL.  Of course, my husband lived in this house before we were married.  My MIL calls my son too fat ALL THE TIME, even after I addressed to her that I found it offensive and I didn't like her calling him fat.  She continues saying it with, I think, a delicious sense of satisfaction that I can't keep her from saying it - and she is saying it like I am actually hurting our child - in fact, recently she brought up that his heart could get smothered!!!!  My son was 8 lbs, 7 oz, and 20 inches at birth, and at 18 weeks he is 19 lbs and 28 1/2 inches long.   Our baby doctor says he is perfect, and that has been told to the MIL, but that doesn't change anything.  She continues on with an obnoxious manner, demanding to know what he has eaten during the day, and snoops about to see what open baby jars she can find so she can loudly and with shock say "He ate ALL this!!"  I can't take it anymore, and my husband only takes up for her because she is a big control freak, and either he fears her, likes the control, doesn't want to make her mad, or I don't know the reason.  I need help dealing with this problem - the remarks about the child's weight is made EVERY EVERY EVERY time she comes around - which is very frequent.  My mother is going to watch the baby when I start work (just got out of college) and my MIL has expressed her great concern about that, saying it is UNHEALTHY for my mom to watch.  I have no idea why that is.

Dr Apter's reply: 
It seems that you should first decide whether you want to try to enlist your husband's help, or whether you want to tackle the problem on your own.  Since your husband seems very reluctant to see (or admit to seeing) any fault in his mother, it might be easier to fight the battle yourself.  Explain that this is now your house, and that you expect her to let you know when she is coming and to enter the house as a visitor would - unless there is specially some prior arrangement.  Try to choose a time when neither of you is particularly stressed, and try to speak neutrally, and keep your neutral tone even when she becomes either hostile or tearful.  Also, explain that you have taken her concerns about your son's weight very seriously, and have sought medical advice.  Your doctor has looked into the matter and advised you that your son's weight is perfectly normal.  Repeat this as many times as you have to.  When she comments on your son's eating habits, simply ignore her.  As for her comments about your mother:  ask her to state her objections clearly, or else refrain from making hints about your mother.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
Dear Dr. Apter, my MIL suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder in which she was clinically diagnosed four years ago.  She refuses to go for therapy or take meds, because I believe she is in denial.  I have two children who she constantly wants to see (these are her only two grandchildren).  She is very good with children.  My question is this:

She wants to see them for four nights a week.  I feel this is too much, because my eldest son is involved in some activities (she tells me to cancel them).  How do I tell her without hurting her feelings?  Actually, I wouldn't mind the help like twice a week to do my errands and other stuff.  But four nights I simply feel is too much.

Dr Apter's reply:
You could begin by telling her how wonderful you think she is with children.  Tell her you would be delighted for her to have the children two nights a week.  When she insists on four nights, simply say, "Two nights would be wonderful.  Four is too much.  But two are wonderful."

My question for Dr. Apter is: 
I recently married my boyfriend after a four year courtship.  My relationship with my MIL was great during those years and soon after.  I noticed a change in her behavior towards me five months after our wedding, when her youngest son eloped and married a woman he had known for three weeks only!!!!  This was his first marriage, and was a shock to the family.  He leads a party-type lifestyle, and made negative comments about getting married when we announced our wedding date.  The day of our wedding, he didn't speak very much, and cried throughout the entire ceremony.  We were surprised at his reaction to the ceremony, but never expected him to want to marry right away.  Since then, my MIL treats his wife as though she's known her for four years.  She frequently compliments my sister-in-law on her appearance, and told her to call her "Mom".  She made it clear to me that she wants me to address her as MIL, and not "Mom".  She has started making subtle, rude remarks towards me as well.  Also, she took down our wedding picture out of its frame, and replaced it with a snapshot of her other son with his wife.  She gave our picture back to us.  She makes comments about my husband's brother and his wife as being so in love to have married so quickly (as opposed to us).  My husband and I have a great relationship, are both college graduates,
and have a great life.  The sudden switch in behavior really has caused some hurt feelings though.  Should we pretend like we don't notice the favoritism she shows her other son and wife?  She makes comments to my husband that he should not tell his brother his salary and anything good about our lives because it makes him feel bad.  Doesn't she know she's making us feel terrible?

Dr Apter's reply:
Some people find it difficult to focus on two different sides of the family at the same time.  Instead of sharing love, a competition is set up.  Your mother-in-law may be one of those people.  Your mother-in-law may be working so hard to accept her new daughter-in-law that she is setting her up as her ideal.  For the time being, I would ignore her change of heart.  But when she says things that insult either you or your husband, tell her that she is offending you.  This might be effective at re-focusing her responses to you. 

 


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Secret Paths: Women in the New Midlife
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Professional Success in the 1990'S


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Dr. Terri Apter
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